Elevate Difference

Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England

Pens and Needles takes a new approach to the study of how women expressed themselves in Early Modern England (roughly 1500-1700). It has long been assumed that the gender roles we know today have been consistent over time. Pens, writing, communication, are the realm of men; needles, sewing, the home, are the realm of women.

Frye disagrees; she gives extensive examples of women writing in the Early Modern era, from poetry to household accounts. There are examples from old books defining a ‘virtuous wife’ as a woman who is educated enough to run her household well. A good wife is, in fact, “a vigilant businesswoman” who “considreth lande, and bieth it, and wyth the fruite of her handes she planteth a vineyard.” (Frye quoting The Common Book of Prayer and Proverbs)

Women of this era have left behind ample evidence that text—prose, poems, names—were ever a part of their daily lives, particularly their textiles. It is no coincidence, she asserts, that so many samplers, appliqués and tapestries incorporate letters and wording in their designs. Many a pillow case is inscribed with a verse or family motto in Latin.

Further still, Frye insists that these sewn objects were a way for women to communicate. These items were used as decoration within the home, allowing women to define their spaces. In the lower classes, an excellent ‘household store’ of good embroidery, well-made clothes, or decorations added to the family’s wealth and prestige.

In the case of Mary, Queen of Scots, her projects became gifts full of meaning to both allies and enemies. Through specific examples, Frye demonstrates how Mary wove her identity into everything she created, emphasizing her noble heritage and royal aspirations. Symbolism is rife in Mary’s work, especially when creating gifts for Elizabeth I, her cousin and captor. Frye contrasts Mary with Elizabeth, who was prone to more intellectual projects. Elizabeth began easing her way into Henry VIII’s court through books she translated and bound herself. These gifts to her father established a reputation for intelligence as well as skill and taste, paving the way for her ascension.

Even now, we’re too quick to dismiss ‘arts and crafts’ as less notable than writing. Sewing is utilitarian, but it is also artful, and a means of expression. When we scoff at them we are falling in line with the sentiments of men who never fully appreciated the labor and creativity that goes into each item. Contemporary women more prone to letters should listen to Frye’s arguments, and grant more respect to their ‘traditional’ peers.

Pens and Needles is an academic text, and its style is better suited to researchers and college classrooms. The language (such as ‘textuality’, a tricky idea to wrap one’s mind around) is not meant for the casual reader. Frye assumes that her reader is already familiar with the era discussed and her area of study.

That said, the book is a real gift for researchers and academics. Frye is meticulous with her citations, resulting in a hefty appendix made up of Notes, Bibliography, and Acknowledgments. The chapters are few, but each is broken down clearly, helping one identify each smaller section.

I would very much have liked to read nonfiction in a more easily digested style, something that would allow me—someone who is interested but has no formal background in the subject—to orient myself and read for the pleasure of learning something new. Instead, I battled to get through it, as I’m sure many students will as well.

Regardless of readability, Pens and Needles is thorough, detailed and well-researched. For all that Frye has cited all her sources, I have no doubt that she will become a source on many other bibliographies.

Written by: Richenda Gould, December 17th 2010